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Lightning have questions in goal, along blue line

by Mike G. Morreale

Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman reacted to the disappointment of missing out on the Stanley Cup Playoffs as any top decision-maker within an organization would -- with a few big changes.

Not surprisingly, the retooling began with some significant moves in goal and along the blue line. Considering the Lightning finished last in the League with a 3.39 goals-against average and 26th on the penalty-kill with a 79.2-percent efficiency, it's no wonder he decided to begin upgrading his club from the goal cage on out.

Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier is confident the team will rebound.

"We played hard every night and I thought we really finished [last season] strong," Lecavalier told the Lightning website. "I think we can take the positives out of [last] season and use them to our advantage to get back to the playoffs next year."

The Lightning can take pride in the fact they finished the season strong, going 21-13-4 over their last 38 games. Over that stretch, the team posted winning streaks of three or more games on four occasions.

Here are six questions the Lightning face entering the 2012-13 campaign.

Anders Lindback only has 38 games of NHL experience over the last two seasons with Nashville. (Photo: Getty Images)

1. Who will be the starting goalie to open the season?

At this stage, it seems offseason acquisition Anders Lindback will enter training camp with the goal of being Tampa Bay's starter. He has 38 games of NHL experience over the past two seasons with the Nashville Predators, but he does have plenty of upside.

"He'll get an opportunity to play for us, and we think he's got the ability to develop into a No. 1 goaltender," Yzerman said. "We've watched a lot of his games. He doesn't have a lot of experience, but we like his size (6-foot-6), we like his athletic ability and we like his technique."

The Lightning acquired his rights from the Predators in the hope he'd become their starter for the foreseeable future. In the interim though, Lindback may battle for playing time with Mathieu Garon or 22-year-old prospect Dustin Tokarski.

Garon is under contract for one more season and Tokarski led the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Norfolk to the Calder Cup championship with a 12-2 record, 1.46 goals-against average, three shutouts and a .944 save percentage in the postseason.

One thing is certain, the addition of Lindback is an upgrade at the position. The foursome of Sebastien Caron, Garon, Tokarski and Dwayne Roloson combined for a 3.23 GAA and .893 save percentage last season.

2. Does veteran forward Martin St. Louis have another 70-plus point season in the tank?

Let's put it this way: At 36, St. Louis ranked second in the League in average ice time (22:37) among forwards while extending his franchise record streak for most consecutive seasons with at least 70 points to six. He played in 77 games and ranked first on the team with 49 assists, and second in both goals (25) and points (74).

While St. Louis saw his consecutive games played streak snapped at 499 after being struck in the face with a puck during a morning skate at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 8, there's no question the 5-foot-8, 176-pound wing has the goods to eclipse the 70-point mark again. It doesn't hurt having Steven Stamkos feeding you the puck, either.

3. Can Steven Stamkos get any better?

Why not? Of the Lightning's 232 goals scored last season, Stamkos connected for a League-best 60 of them, accounting for nearly 26 percent of the team's offense. He became the 20th player in League history to score 60, and finished second to Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin in the scoring race with a career-best 97 points. He won his second Rocket Richard Trophy, but lost out to Malkin for the Hart Trophy.

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Stamkos connected for a League-leading 12 game-winning goals, including an NHL-record five in overtime. In a season where the Lightning lost 321 man-games to injury, he proved it really didn't matter. An improved supporting cast is another reason for optimism.

"What I like is that he just pushes always for more," Lightning coach Guy Boucher told the team's website. "He just wants more all the time. It's never enough, and it's not the goals. He never has enough of getting better -- that's why he scores the goals. It's a byproduct of his attitude, his work ethic, and his willingness to pay the price."

Stamkos played all 82 games for the third straight season, while averaging a career-best 22:01 of ice time. His 37 assists were third on the team, and his plus-7 and 42 takeaways were second. He finished fifth on the team with 109 hits and third among Tampa Bay forwards with 37 blocked shots.

"It's not just about skill," Boucher said. "Skill, in his case, is not the biggest [factor] in why he scores those goals. It's just desire."

4. Is the defense good enough?

Yzerman was focused on upgrading the blue line for the upcoming season, not only following his blueprint of developing players from within the system but acquiring a few big names via free agency.

He signed Brendan Mikkelson, Brian Lee, Keith Aulie, Artem Sergeev and Evan Oberg, all of whom are under the age of 25. Yzerman also inked unrestricted free agents Matt Carle, Matt Taormina and Sami Salo.

Yzerman is undoubtedly looking to develop a young defensive core around Lindback in attempt to make certain his young goalie is given plenty of support. The defense has been given an upgrade over last season, though the Tampa Tribune reported in April that veteran Mattias Ohlund might not return after enduring major knee surgery last winter.

The club will look for guidance and spirited play from Eric Brewer and Victor Hedman, as well as newcomers Carle and Salo. Don't be surprised if prospect Mark Barberio makes a nice enough impression during training camp to earn some playing time with the big club. Barberio earned the Eddie Shore award as the AHL's most outstanding defender in 2011-12, producing 13 goals and 61 points in 74 regular-season games for Norfolk.

5. Is prospect Vladislav Namestnikov ready to turn pro?

The 2011 first-round draft pick (No. 27) has had a productive two seasons in the Ontario Hockey League with the London Knights, producing 30 goals and 68 points as a rookie and 22 goals and 71 points in 2011-12. Yzerman signed his prized prospect to a three-year, entry-level deal in March and he's expected to begin the season with the team's new American Hockey League affiliate in Syracuse.

He could, however, make the decision tougher on the Lightning management team with a solid training camp.

"Vlady can play on any of the top four lines in your organization because he's dedicated and can kill penalties," director of amateur scouting Al Murray told "He can play with top offensive players, so he has a lot of versatility moving forward. He'll be in competition with others for our NHL team since we have a third-line center spot open, or he'll be on our AHL team."

6. Where will the secondary scoring come from?

Brett Connolly
Brett Connolly
Right Wing - TBL
GOALS: 4 | ASST: 11 | PTS: 15
SOG: 94 | +/-: -9
Believe it or not, Tampa Bay did have five different players with 20 or more goals last season, which tied three other clubs for second most in the League behind the Boston Bruins (six players).

The list included Stamkos (60 goals), St. Louis (25), Teddy Purcell (24), Lecavalier (22) and Ryan Malone (20). That's quite an accomplishment for a team decimated by injury and without the services of departed Simon Gagne and Sean Bergenheim from the previous season.

Perhaps 2010 first-round pick Brett Connolly will approach the 20-goal mark this season. Connolly played 68 games as a rookie in 2011-12 and notched four goals and 15 points. Connolly said he needs to improve defensively in order to earn more playing time -- he averaged 11:28 per game. He could fill in as a third-line wing this season while improving in both zones.

With the Western Hockey League's Prince George Cougars, Connolly connected for 30 goals in 2008-09 and 46 in 2010-11 before turning pro.

"He's eventually going to be one of those great skill players who has the grit," Boucher said. "But [Connolly] is also going to be reliable defensively."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale

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